As the 2012 season plays itself out, there will undoubtedly be injuries to key players at each and every position, it is the nature of this beautifully, brutal sport. In fantasy football, the savvy owner attempts to stay one step ahead of the game by covering all of his/her bases by having replacements on their squad to cover the injuries. The “handcuff” running back can be the difference in a fantasy team staying in contention or falling off the pace after sustaining the loss of a top running back. With the NFL Draft starting tonight, we will take one last look at the landscape of the handcuffs to draft and hold on to while hoping your number one back does not go down.
First off, we will scratch off the teams that do not currently have a handcuff option at running back on their current roster. Look for many of these franchises to address the running back position in this weekends draft.
Baltimore Ravens: Ricky retired and Anthony Allen and Cedric Peerman are not the answer.
Cleveland Browns: They don’t have their number one running back on the roster, let alone his handcuff.
Denver Broncos: Moreno=bust, and Fannin is a huge question mark. Denver will draft their number two.
New York Jets: Shonn Greene is clinging to the starting job, and pre-season darling Bilal Powell is not ready.
St Louis Rams: Quinn Porter? Chase Reynolds? Nope, need to draft a running back early.
Green Bay Packers: James Starks is an iffy number one and incumbent Alex Green is recovering from injury.
Seattle Seahawks: Leon Washington is so underused in their running game that I have to believe that they will draft the handcuff to Lynch.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Redman is the starter with Mendenhall possibly out for half the season or more. Dwyer has never taken the bull by the horns, so Pittsburgh still needs a handcuff option for Redman.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mossis Madu? What? The Bucs need a lot of help at running back, Blount is not even a lock to be the starter week one.
New York Giants: DJ Ware is a third down specialist, and Da’Rel Scott is unproven in regular season action.
San Diego Chargers: Brinkley flashed potential a couple years ago but the Chargers need a reliable option to help out Mathews.
Next, we will eliminate the teams that employ the dreaded running back by committee system, as their is no real way to distinguish the number one from a handcuff running back.
Buffalo Bills: Jackson and Spiller are supposed to split the work in 2012, after Spiller finally seemed to get on track after taking over for the injured Jackson last season for the Bills.
Carolina Panthers: Williams and Stewart are the quintessential RBBC duo, and now toss Mike Tolbert into the mix.
Detroit Lions: This may not be as much a committee situation as it is a hot mess. Best has not been cleared for contact, LeShoure faces a suspension and is recovering from an Achilles injury and Kevin Smith has an injury history and a ton of mileage on his body.
New Orleans: Ingram, Sproles and Thomas are all used prominently in the Saints attack, and oh yeah, Chris Ivory is still around.
So now we can examine the top handcuffs that fantasy owners will want to draft as insurance to their premier running backs.
#1 Toby Gerhart, MINN: With the health and availability of Adrian Peterson heading into 2012 season still up in the air, Gerhart is a must draft handcuff to AP. Gerhart averaged just over 20 touches, 5 yards per carry, and 98 yards per game the last five weeks of 2011. Once he inherited the starting job from the injured Peterson, Gerhart finally showed some of the skills he had displayed at Stanford. He showed versatility by hauling in 16 receptions over the final five weeks, and putting up an impressive 3 receiving touchdowns. Gerhart may enter 2012 as the starting running back in Minnesota if Peterson lands on the PUP list, and even if AP is ready week one, look for his touches to be limited. Gerhart earned the trust of the Vikings coaching staff by stepping in for Peterson and playing very well last season, and now fantasy owners need to show that same trust and handcuff him to Peterson for 2012.
#2 Ben Tate, HOU: Tate was on track to be the starting running back in Houston back in 2010, before a severe ankle injury in the first pre season game would end his rookie campaign. Tate was then ‘Wally Pipped’, as Arian Foster inherited the starting position for the Texans and the rest is history. Foster is now arguably the best running back in fantasy football and Tate is arguably the best handcuff. As Foster battled a balky hamstring early in 2011, Tate exploded out of the gate with 251 total yards and a touchdown in the first two weeks. The Texans would continue to insert Tate into the game plan throughout the season and he would finish with 942 rushing yards, another 98 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. He is a fantasy stud waiting to happen, unfortunately he sits behind a true fantasy stud on the depth chart. If you draft Arian Foster, you must have Ben Tate selected as his handcuff.
#3 Michael Bush, CHI: Matt Forte has been franchised in Chicago, and a prolonged hold out, or even a draft weekend trade could be on the horizon. Bush proved last season in Oakland that he can be a dominant starting NFL running back. Does the front office for the Bears know something we don’t? Absolutely. Bush did seem to fade down the stretch last season for the Raiders, and may not have been physically prepared to shoulder the workload of nearly 300 total touches. Best case scenario, Bush enters the season as the starter while Forte holds out, gets in game shape after a long hold out, or has been traded and Bush gets the lions share of touches. More likely, Bush inherits the goal line duties that Marion Barber handled last season and also spells Forte during games, as Bush has the versatility to stay on the field for all three downs. Either way, if you own Forte, get Michael Bush on your roster.
#4 Kendall Hunter, SF: The 49ers are looking to go all the way in 2012, after knocking on the door last season. To do that, they will need a fresh Frank Gore for the playoffs, and to have a fresh Gore they will need to get Hunter more touches. The rookie flashed the burst, speed and soft hands out of the backfield last season for the 49ers and more touches are coming his way. The signing of Brandon Jacobs casts a bit of a pall on the second year running backs potential, but not as much as some pundits would have you believe. Jacobs will be the goal line back in San Francisco, while Hunter and Gore will do their thing between the twenties. Hunter averaged just over 4 yards a carry on 112 rushes last season and scored two touchdowns. Hunter is a threat to take the ball to the house every time he touches it, and as Frank Gore is rested more in 2012, that will equate to more touches for Hunter. Lock him up as the handcuff to Gore.
#5 Evan Royster, WSH: Royster stepped in for a banged up Roy Helu in the final two weeks of the 2011 season and made his mark. He amassed 245 yards on 39 carries for an impressive 6.2 yards per carry and rolled up 7 receptions for another 67 yards. Only the lack of reaching the end zone kept his finish to the season from being considered exceptional. As always, with a Mike Shanahan coached team, there will be a maddening amount of questions surrounding the running back rotation throughout 2012. Helu seems to have the inside track to open the season as the number one option, but any running back in Washington could ascend to the starting slot at any time. Draft Royster as the handcuff to Helu and you might just get a number one fantasy running back in the process.
#6 Peyton Hillis, KC: Hillis had a very forgettable 2011 season in Cleveland. Hillis had emerged in 2010 as a fantasy force, with over 1,200 total yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. Just as quickly as he had burst onto the fantasy landscape, Hillis took a drastic fall from grace in 2011. Hillis struggled with illness, injuries and reports of his teammates questioning his commitment, which culminated in a season where he would manage only 717 total yards and 3 scores. Hillis will be reunited with Brian Daboll in Kansas City for 2012, after inking a $3 million, one year contract with the Chiefs. Daboll was the offensive coordinator in Cleveland for the breakout 2010 season that Hillis enjoyed. While his role may start out as a complementary one behind Jamaal Charles, when motivated, few players run as hard as Hillis. Look for his role to expand as the season progresses and his abilities as a receiver to be exploited. Charles is returning from a season ending knee injury suffered in week two last season, and Hillis could also benefit from an in increase in carries early on in 2012, while Charles shakes off the rust. Unlike a lot of reports I’ve read to date, I almost envision Kansas City as a RBBC situation. To be safe, if you draft Charles, go out and get Hillis a few rounds later.
#7 Daniel Thomas, MIA: This is another situation where I struggled to determine if it is actually more of a RBBC, but ultimately feel that Thomas will serve as more of a back up to Reggie Bush as opposed to a complementary running back. Reggie finally put it all together last season in Miami and was an actual number one NFL, and fantasy running back, and more importantly was healthy throughout the fantasy football season ( he missed week #17 for the Dolphins). Thomas struggled through a rookie season in which he would be in and out of the line up, and be used very sparingly in some of the games he dressed for. He flashed the skills that had Miami select him in the 2nd round last season, in weeks two and three, when he put up 239 total yards and a touchdown. The rest of the season was a disappointment as a balky hamstring would hamper Thomas. Reports out of Miami this off season have been favorable for Thomas, citing a bulking up of his upper body, and no lingering effects from the hamstring injury. Bush earned the number one spot with his stellar 2011 season, but to hope he stays healthy for two entire seasons is a stretch, grab Thomas as his handcuff.
#8 Jacquizz Rodgers, ATL: The Falcons will look to lessen the workload for Michael Turner in 2012. Turner has carried the ball a whopping 1,190 times since joining Atlanta in 2008, and has scored 50 touchdowns. As Atlanta looks to ratchet down the number of touches for Turner, they will increase the touches for Rodgers. Rodgers had a total of 78 touches in 2011, and posted for the most part, very modest totals, 205 rushing and 188 receiving yards with 2 touchdowns. Rodgers averaged just over 5 yards per each touch in his rookie season, and the Falcons will look to definitely increase his workload moving forward. Atlanta will have to be more creative in getting the ball to Rodgers in space, if he is to live up to the ‘Darren Sproles lite’ role that many envision him taking on. As Turner sees his total touches diminish in 2012, his owners will want to draft Rodgers as the main handcuff option.
#9 Mike Goodson, OAK: This one comes with a bit of an asterisk, as Taiwan Jones could also end up as the handcuff to Darren McFadden. My hunch is that Goodson will beat Jones out for the role, and anytime someone is the back up to McFadden, they have instant value. McFadden has only managed to play 45 out of 64 possible regular season games since entering the NFL, and is coming off of a Lisfranc injury that limited him to only 7 games in 2011. All reports out of Oakland are that Darren is fully recovered and participating in OTAs. Yeah well, that and a dollar fifty will get you a newspaper. Bottom line is, McFadden doesn’t finish seasons and Goodson will get plenty of opportunities in 2012. In his only extended playing time, in 2010 for Carolina, Goodson posted some nice fantasy numbers. He carried the ball 103 times for 452 yards, had 3 touchdowns and added 40 receptions for another 310 yards. Look to take Goodson late in your fantasy drafts, if you were brave enough to gamble on McFadden early.
#10 Dion Lewis, PHI: This one is simple. The Eagles have stated that they are fine with Lewis being the primary back up to Lesean McCoy heading into the 2012 season, and fantasy owners should take note. Lewis put up decent numbers in very limited action as a rookie last season, totaling 99 yards on 24 total touches and had a touchdown. In his most extended action, in week #17 against the Redskins, Lewis had 12 carries for 58 yards and a score. As long as Lewis is number two behind McCoy on the depth chart in Philadelphia, he is the handcuff to ‘Shady’.
Now we can all sit back and enjoy the 2012 NFL Draft, and then of course reassess each and every one of these situations. Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, Lamar Miller and LaMichael James will all hear their names called this weekend, and on fantasy football draft day. Each and every one of them will alter the make up of these situations, and help fantasy owners begin their preparations for 2012 in earnest. For now, let’s get this draft going!!